VATICAN CITY — Jake Finkbonner was so close to death after flesh-eating bacteria infected him through a cut on his lip that his parents had last rites performed and were discussing donating the 5-year-old's tiny organs.
Jake's 2006 cure from the infection was deemed medically inexplicable by the Vatican, the "miracle" needed to propel a 17th century Native American, Kateri Tekakwitha, on to sainthood. Kateri will be canonized on Sunday along with six other people, the first Native American to receive the honor.
Jake is fully convinced, as is the church, that the prayers his family and community offered to Kateri, including the placement of a relic of the soon-to-be saint on Jake's leg, were responsible for his survival.
Jake, now 12 and an avid basketball player and cross-country runner, will be present at the canonization, along with hundreds of members of his own Lummi tribe from northwest Washington state and reservations across the U.S. and Canada who have converged on Rome to honor one of their own. It's a ceremony the Catholic Church hopes will encourage Native Americans to keep to their Christian faith amid continued resentment among some that Catholicism was imposed on them by colonial-era missionaries centuries ago.
"I believe everybody has a purpose on this earth," Jake's mother Elsa Finkbonner said this week soon after the family arrived in Rome for the ceremony. "I think this Sunday Jake will define his purpose, and that's to make Kateri a saint."
Jake, a poised, lanky kid who just got his braces off, seems perfectly at ease with his role in the whole thing, gracious and grateful to the doctors who performed 29 surgeries to save his life and reconstruct his face.
"It's a really special thing," Jake told The Associated Press, flanked by his parents on a hotel terrace sofa. "We've never been to Rome, and especially meeting the pope? It'll be an experience of a lifetime."